“From Comrade to Convert,” Ensign, Feb. 1993, 68
Ben Eremenko has watched the opening of several Soviet republics for missionary work with amazement and often tears of joy.
In 1956, when he was twenty-two years old, Ben was a Soviet sailor. When their ship was impounded for crossing into territorial waters in Taiwan, Ben and more than a dozen of his fellow sailors jumped ship. For Ben, this meant losing contact with his parents and sisters in Ukraine, with the possibility that they may never know what happened to him.
Nine of the sailors, including Ben, asked for and received asylum in the United States. They were sent to New York City. Five of their number who had the most schooling were sent to a university to learn English. Ben and three others went to work in a factory, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Soviet secret police found the five university men and took them home to prison. Ben and his three remaining companions were then sent to other areas of the country for their own protection. He ended up in Coos Bay, Oregon.
In Coos Bay, Ben and a good friend would go out to bars, but the friend moved to Texas. When the friend returned to Coos Bay, Ben invited him out. But his friend told him that he didn’t drink anymore. “I asked him why,” Ben says, “and he told me he had joined the Mormon Church.”
Ben was curious, and his friend introduced him to the Church, where Ben later met his future wife, Marilyn. Ten years after arriving in the United States, Ben was allowed to become a citizen and again use his real name.
The breakup of the Soviet Union enabled Ben and Marilyn to try contacting his parents and sisters. They wrote a letter and sent it to Ben’s old address in the village where he was born. About a month later, the telephone rang in the middle of the night. It was Ben’s sister with news that Ben’s parents, now in their eighties, were still alive, and his sisters were both married and living near their parents.
“They couldn’t believe it,” said Ben. “Everyone said I must be dead after all these years, but my sister had a feeling I wasn’t. I couldn’t talk with my father or mother that first time because they were so surprised and happy that they just wept.”
Ben and his family began writing to each other. In those letters, Ben tried to explain about the gospel and the life he had been leading for the past thirty-five years. He began gathering genealogical information for temple work.
Ben and Marilyn have not yet visited his homeland. But in the meantime, Ben has given the names of his family members to a missionary from his ward in Coos Bay, Michael Higgins, who will be serving his mission in Ukraine. And Ben has written to tell his family not to be surprised if two young men in white shirts and dark suits come knocking on their door.—Janet Thomas, Salt Lake City